Bleeding Audio is the first feature-length film directed by award-winning cinema talent Chelsea Christer. It details the roller-coaster story of the acclaimed American rock band The Matches in their career between 1997 and 2009 that was constantly challenged by some of the most controversial contradictions and innovations in the music industry.
Since getting together in 1997 in Oakland, California, The Matches were set to become a worldwide success act, and after building a loyal local fanbase, they soon broke out and became touring internationally. Out of the three studio albums they released, Decomposer reached number 18 on Billboard’s Independent Albums charts in 2006 and A Band in Hope charted on the Billboard 200 at number 179 in 2008.
But their journey suffered a serious setback over the years as reality crashed against the drastic changes and the digital revolution the music industry has seen in recent times: as declining record sales, excessive touring and illegal downloading and streaming added up to questionable management decisions, illness, burn-out and also plain bad luck, The Matches eventually disbanded in 2009.
Upon their first reunion in 2014 which proved to be an explosive success and resulted in further reunions that took place between 2016 and 2018 to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of each of their studio albums, Chelsea first became involved in promoting The Matches as a fan and friend of the band.
The initial idea was to shoot some promotional content to help support the reunion, but she unexpectedly became more and more interested in their story, and eventually decided to make a full documentary film about the band. It took Chelsea two crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter, the support of many filmmaking professionals and a total of 7 years of hard work to get this amazing film done, and what she has put together is much more than just a tribute feature about The Matches: this is primarily a factual document about how the music industry really works, what challenges your favourite musicians face in the digital age of music and where all the money from record sales is really going.
The 91-minute film features intimate interviews with The Matches’ band members Shaw Harris, Justin San Souci, Matt Whalen and Jon Devoto in addition to in-depth comments from renowned music stars like Mark Hoppus of blink-182, Simon Neil and James Johnston of Biffy Clyro and Tom Higgenson of Plain White T’s whom I also interviewed about this project.
Bleeding Audio premiered at 16 film festivals in 2020 and 2021 and won seven awards so far, including Best Music Documentary at the Oxford Film Festival, and much more is yet to come, as you’ll learn in this interview with the brilliant blue-haired film director and producer Chelsea Christer.
Everyone who’s ever bought a record in their life should absolutely give this amazing documentary a watch.
Chelsea, how did you come up with Bleeding Audio and why should people watch it?
I have known The Matches as a fan and friend for a long time. In 2014, they let me know that they were going to do this reunion, and I offered to help promote it and do some little marketing videos to help get the word out, but as I was interviewing them for these videos, I basically learned a lot more about their story and how it was remarkably similar to many other artists journeys, but also it was just this really unique and tumultuous time in the music industry. And I thought it was a great opportunity to tell their story and give them credit where credit was due in my humble opinion. But I also wanted to tell a bigger story that many people could relate to and maybe get a better understanding of what music was like during that weird time in the first 00s.
How did you come up with the film title?
The Matches have a song called Audio Blood, which is one of their fan favourites. And so I figured that this film had three big things at its heart: it was about The Matches and their legacy, it was about this music industry that was being completely gutted, and it was also about how fans are the ones that keep music alive. So I thought it would be great to do a play on a popular Matches’ song, and so I got Bleeding Audio from their tune Audio Blood – whilst also acknowledging that fans have “audio blood”, they bleed audio for their artists, and it would also have a darker turn of this industry that was just bleeding artists of their music and their audio. So that’s where the title came from.
What’s the most important lesson about the music business people can learn from The Matches’ story?
I think what’s great about The Matches’ story is that it’s a quite unique story, but a lot of their trials and tribulations are the same as any artist, any creative or anyone who wants to embark on a creative career in the field that they choose – whether it’s music, film, graphic design or whatever, as a lot of these same things happen in many of these fields. I’m finding it myself in my own journey with this film, where maybe I should have been paying closer attention to the own story that I was telling – and I think on that end, any artist can access that same story. But on the other side, too, I really would love for music fans to watch this film and get a better understanding of what our artists go through. Music is a soundtrack to our lives, it’s such a huge part of who we are and what gets us through the day, and I feel like there has been a bigger and bigger disconnect in how we support our artists to create the content, to create the art that we consume and that brings us comfort, and we forget and don’t have an understanding of how they’re able to sustain their own lives and careers. And I hope that watching this film as consumers will give people a better understanding of how hard it is, but also to hopefully maybe buy a record instead of just streaming their music or you know, buying vinyl or a t-shirt just because anything we can do will help keep our artists around. I mean, if we don’t support them financially, they’re just not going to stick around and I think I want people to remember that.
What legacy have The Matches left to the world of music?
Oh, that’s a good question. I think what’s so unique about The Matches is that they’ve always had a love and appreciation for how music forms a community, and how music is an art form where you can express your personal experience, but also as an art form that can uniquely bring people together and form a legacy. I think what is uniquely The Matches is that everyone talks about how they bring people together and how they have this community, and that is something that they kept throughout their entire career and their entire journey, they always made sure to engage and connect with people one on one and yeah – their legacy is certainly the people who they’ve brought together through their music and through their kindness.
I recently interviewed Tony Crane of The Merseybeats, a band that used to play with The Beatles in the 1960s, and he said that he doesn’t really get how artists can charge fans for meets & greets nowadays, while he and his band have always just been going out of the venue after each show to meet their fans and thank them for showing up.
The Matches still do that, they don’t do meets & greets. Whenever they do these reunion shows, they’re always like “Oh, what’s the point as we’re gonna be out in the crowd anyway?” They just generously agreed to do a small meet & greet to support our Kickstarter campaign to make the film, but that was it and I kind of had to impose the idea on them. But you know, artists need to do whatever they can to be able to survive, buy groceries and pay rent, and meets & greets are a big part of that. But I think the other thing to remember is that the dollar that you give to your artists only goes so far these days because most artists are signed to 360° deals today, and so the labels get a cut of every single dollar a band makes, and that’s something many consumers don’t know. So, for example, when you buy concert tickets, this gets filtered away from the band, and concert tickets are getting so expensive because they’ve got to pay the crew and venue fees. Venue fees have gone up a lot, and venues take a cut of all merchandising, sales too. And so you know, people just don’t understand what actually gets filtered from the bands, and I just hope they will start asking questions and be more aware of it.
What do you think of the current state of music?
I think that the current state of music, and also the current state of cinema, is actually really optimistic in the way that the tools to create have got less and less expensive, and that’s breaking down a barrier and allowing more diverse and marginalised voices to break through because it’s basically a time when these art forms are now being more democratised. So, a talented artist can create something in their bedroom, put it up on SoundCloud and then you know, become Billie Eilish, and the same thing applies to filmmakers, and I think that it’s a really exciting time for more voices to get out there and more art to be made, but I also think it’s a time to when we think that these tools are so easy. Although a lot of people might not be researching the craft itself, I think that people who are really talented and who really understand their art form, still break through and the great stuff is so close to the top, but I also think that how artists are being compensated economically structurally, is a bit dismal, so I’m hoping that we can find a way of making that more sustainable for all artists.
Where do you see all this going?
I mean, honestly, who knows? Within the last five years, Spotify has just completely taken over, and it’s hard to predict what will change in the United States. The only thing that came out out of that administration that was remotely positive in my opinion, was this bill called the Music Modernization Act 2018 and is an attempt at bringing a better payout of streaming royalties to artists. And, as far as I know, platforms like Spotify, Google, Pandora and Amazon all appealed this, but I don’t know where it is at now, I should do my research on how it’s going. I think a lot of the people who were making money off of artists are satisfied with how things are, and just are still not acknowledging the gross disparities in how artists are being paid out on these streaming platforms that can decide what the payout for the artists is and it’s not even paid out equally. It’s all paid on a sliding scale, so if you’re an artist with 100,000 monthly listeners, or you’re an artist with a million monthly listeners, you don’t get paid the same percentage. But I think the dust is settled, even in films. After the tragedy that recently occurred in the movie industry [in October 2021, Alec Baldwin accidentally discharged a gun being used as a prop during filming, killing one person and causing injuries to another] and the labour movement that’s happening now to demand better pay, better work hours and more safety, I’m hoping that this will result in a positive change both for musicians and filmmakers because currently, it’s just not sustainable.
What do you think of the fact that many films can only be watched on Netflix, and they don’t even go to movie theatres?
There are certain accessibility concerns that we all should be more aware of, the first being the disabled community. Film festivals were once very inaccessible for a lot of the disabled community, both for mobility issues like lots of stairs, and for being financially prohibitive, and so I do appreciate how digital streaming like Netflix and others are providing more access to art and movies. I think that’s great, but I do believe that experiencing a movie in the cinema is very special, I love seeing movies in the theatre, and as a filmmaker, I really want that experience. And so, I think that Nextflix is doing its thing, and I wish that they would offer filmmakers an option to bring their movies to cinemas, but let’s also say that theatrical is very expensive, so they may see no reason to invest in doing a theatrical rollout. But there is always a good side and a bad side, and the good side is certainly more accessibility and the fact that they provide really great content in an affordable way. On the other hand, I have family members who live on a ranch in the middle of nowhere and they haven’t had internet for the last year, and so I would talk to my mom and say “Oh, you should check out that show”, and she’d be like “How can I watch it?” But if it’s on Netflix, they don’t even put a lot of their shows on DVDs. So, basically, my mom had a six-year TV and movie gap because Netflix wouldn’t print their films to DVD and wouldn’t put them into theatres. And you know, she lives in an area where there’s just no high-speed internet. This is something that I hope Netflix takes into consideration about the different forms of accessibility and the fact that some areas just don’t get internet.
There is a moment in Bleeding Audio when Tom Higgenson from Plain White T’s explains that all the money from record sales goes into repaying the loan the artists have with their record label. Do you want to elaborate further on it?
Yeah, and Tom breaks it down pretty well, but he had to simplify it even more by using 25% as a reference percentage, while most artists make between 8% and 12% on the dollar for every record that’s paid through the record label. Basically, the label acts as a credit card or a loan giver. They have money and they say “Okay, we’re gonna pay for your record and we’re gonna give you money upfront and pay for music videos etcetera”, so it’s going to be $500,000. But it’s a loan, they’re not just investing it in you for free. They need that money back, and so artists have to pay that money back through the percentage that they earn on the dollar for everything that’s paid in for the band. But they’re not going to be all settled up as soon as they have the $500,000 back, they need to make $5 million in order for that to actually get paid back and the artists to start making money from their music and from whatever the label invested in. But this may be different for indies versus majors, of course.
How can people really support their favourite artists if whether a record is sold the singer doesn’t get anything in return?
Well, every artist gets a little bit from music sales, like they still get a certain percentage that’s paid out to them. But what I would say is the best thing to do is what they do on Bandcamp Friday. This is a website where artists are able to sell their music, and they’re the only streaming platform that is actually trying to get artists compensated. Artists on Bandcamp Friday get paid the first Friday of the month, and the site doesn’t take their fees, so the artist makes 100% of whatever is sold. And so if you like an artist, you buy a record, a t-shirt or something else, and they get paid, and just everything counts in the end. You know, I’m on that bridge between Generation X and Millennials, and so I know what it’s like to buy a record, open it up, look at it and read the liner notes. It’s a great physical and tangible experience.
What do you think of talent shows like The X Factor, American Idol and stuff like that?
I don’t think I’ve ever watched them enough to have a full opinion, honestly. And you know, reality TV and contests are definitely something that everybody loves to watch and enjoy. And I mean, I think a few breakouts came from American Idol. I actually don’t know if I can answer this question as I just don’t know about it, but it is interesting how many people like to watch the creation of a pop star. But it’s just so different when artists are creating their own original songs and all the work that it takes to get there. I’m not discrediting anyone who’s on those shows, they’re incredibly talented people, but I think it’s a very different path. So it’s hard to compare the two.
Bleeding Audio has won seven awards so far; what else do you want this film to achieve?
We are currently working on finalising the distribution plan. The next steps for us are working on a short run release that might involve some live shows, and then the goal is to finalise our distribution plan and get it up on iTunes, Google or wherever else you can buy or rent your films and then hopefully land on a streamer sometime after that. So, that’s the current plan, and hopefully, there’s more news on that, but I would keep an eye out on it in Spring 2022.
What achievements are you most proud of, at this stage in your career?
I’m sounding dramatic now, but I feel like finishing this film nearly killed me. It’s so hard to make a movie! And so, honestly, I’m just very proud to have been able to finish this film – it’s everything I had hoped for, but it’s different than what I thought it would be. It was a very difficult undertaking and it feels good to prove that I can finish a film especially when the whole world told me that nobody wanted a movie about The Matches. The only people who told me “Yes, let’s have a movie about The Matches” were their hardcore fans, whether everyone else in the industry I ever talked to was like “What would you make a movie about a band nobody’s heard of?”, but I know this is a bigger story than that, so I feel a little vindicated now, I feel like I proved them wrong a little bit. But yeah, I’m very very proud of Bleeding Audio, and I’m hopeful and excited for whatever comes next.
What are your plans for the future?
I come from scripts, so I’m not usually a documentary filmmaker, and so I have a few scripts and a bunch of stories that I’m very eager to tell. As a next step, I would also love to make my next feature; Bleeding Audio took me like two years to complete, and it’s been seven years now after the festival run, and so I’m very ready to move into my next project, and I hope it’s one of these stories that I’ve been kind of stewing on for the last few years.
That’s great. I love your hair, by the way. Why blue?
Thank you. I don’t know, blue is just a colour that I dyed my hair a long, long time ago and it just felt very me and I’ve just kept it blue ever since. It just kind of feel like my natural hair colour now!